Sociology of Shi'ite Islam

Collected Essays

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Saïd Amir Arjomand
  • Leiden, Netherlands: 
    , August
     498 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Sociology of Shi’ite Islam is the collection of scholarly articles by a historical sociologist applying a Weberian sociological framework for the historical analysis of Twelver Shi‘i Islam. This book encompasses the comprehensive socio-historical analysis of Twelver Shi‘i Islam from its sectarian formation in the eighth century to its establishment as the national religion of the Safavid Empire in the sixteenth century and down to the Islamic revolution and the formation of a Shi‘i theocratic state in Iran in the late twentieth century. 

This book is comprised of nineteen essays grouped into four parts. The first part addresses the historical formation of Shi‘ite Islam from the eighth to thirteenth centuries CE. Author Saïd Arjomand builds his sociological framework upon some Weberian ideas—especially the idea that world religions provide solutions to the problem of meaning. More specifically, religions are salvific solutions to the troubling question of how human suffering can be reconciled with the justice of God/divinity. The unique Twelver Shi‘i salvific solution to this problem of meaning is the combination of three main elements: 1) imamate as the constant divine guidance after the death of Prophet Muhammad; 2) occultation of the Twelfth Imam; and 3) a universal redemptive theology of martyrdom based on the tragic death of Prophet’s grandson, Husayn in 680 CE. All of these elements were lacking in mainstream Sunni Islam. 

The second part of the book, which contains four essays, is concerned with the spread and establishment of Twelver Shi‘ism in Iran from the Safavids (1501-1772) to the Islamic revolution of 1979. Twelver Shi‘i Islam under the Safavids gradually transformed from a sectarian minority religion into the national religion of the majority of Iranians. Along with this transformation, jurists as the bearer of Twelver Shi‘i Islam were also gradually transformed into a hierocratic organization. Under the Qajar period and due to the lapse of the quasi-sacrality of kingship, a transition occurred from “Caesaropapism” to the state-hierocracy dualism. With Ruhollah Khomeini, however, there is a kind of return to the “Caesaropapism” of Safavids, this time in the form of theocratic monarchy. 

 The third part of the book, with its four essays, is devoted to the structural changes in the bearers of the Twelver Shi‘i Islam. While in the formative period of Twelver Shi‘ism—the eighth and ninth centuries—the bearers of Shi‘ism were charismatic holy Imams themselves. In the time of the Lesser Occultation they became the emissaries of the Hidden Imam, and in the time of the Occultation this function was first assumed by traditionists (Muhaddithun) such as Muhammad ibn al-Kulayni and ibn Babawayh, and later on by theologians such as al-Mofid and Nasir al-Tusi, and then is finally left to jurists. 

The essays in part 4—the final part of the book—discuss the socio-political back-and-forth movement of Twelver Shi‘ism between revolution and constitution. The first Shi‘i revolution was the change brought about by the Safavids. The second was the revolutionary changes made by the 1979 Islamic Revolution and these changes had a profound effect on the Shi‘i political theology. Focusing on the 1979 revolution, Arjomand argues that the lay and cleric intellectual dissidents, such as Mojtahed Shabestari, Moshen Kadivar, and Abdolkarim Soroush, shake the theoretical foundation built upon by Khomeini and his revolutionary followers. 

Except for chapters 5 and 9, all other chapters had been published elsewhere in the form of book chapters or journal articles. In at least one case, however, the original article seems to be much more meticulously edited than the one included in this book. Chapter 19 concludes that, “the complicated constitutional politics of Iran under President Khātami is the subject of a different paper I presented in Budapest last week” (453). Here, it is not clear to what paper “the last week” is referring to. The original article, however, was clear enough, “the complicated constitutional politics of Iran under President Khàtami is the subject of a different article.”

Despite Arjomand’s claim that granting the title of “Imam” to an ayatollah before Imam Khomeini was “totally unprecedented in the history of the Twelver Shiʿa who had restricted the title to the holy Imams” (187), it was not totally unprecedented. The author himself reports that around a quarter-century before Khomeini, Muhammad Khalisi was referred to by his followers as Imam (374). One might add to this the case of Musa Sadr who was widely referred to as an Imam before Khomeini. This book also has a number of typos, repeated and randomly underlined words, and punctuation errors.

 Sociology of Shiʿite Islam: Collected Essays is a must-read book full of insights for both specialists as well as those interested in the history of Shi‘i Islam.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yaser Mirdamadi is a doctoral candidate in Islamic and Middle East studies at the University of Edinburgh.

Date of Review: 
August 14, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Saïd Amir Arjomand (Ph.D, University of Chicago, 1980) is Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology and Director of the Stony Brook Institute for Global Studies, President of the Association for the Study of Persianate Societies and Editor of the Journal of Persianate Studies.


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